Manyoshu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


(Also known as A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) 8th century Japanese poetry.

The Manyoshu is the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry and traces its origins to the Asuka and Nara periods. A massive work consisting of twenty volumes containing 4516 poems, the Manyoshu is often considered the best of the imperial anthologies for the strength and purity of its expression of the Japanese spirit. Identities are known of more than four hundred of its contributors but there are many others who have never been identified. Much of the richness of the Manyoshu is due to the wide background of the authors; unlike later anthologies, the Manyoshu does not exclude everything outside the imperial court but encompasses all levels of Japanese life. More than ninety percent of the poems are in the tanka form, which consists of thirty-one syllables spread over five lines in the arrangement of five syllables, seven syllables, five, seven, and seven. Also represented are poems in the forms of sedoka and choka; both types were to lose their popularity and virtually disappear in future years.

Textual History

Some of the poems in the Manyoshu are thought to have come down from the oral tradition and may have originated as far back as the third century; clearly some other verses date to at least the middle of the fifth century. But by far the majority of them were written from early in the seventh century until at least 759, which is the year of the last dated poem, by Otomo Yakamochi (716-785). The Manyoshu took many years to develop into its present arrangement which, unlike other Japanese poetry anthologies, is not arranged thematically. Yakamochi is credited with compiling, or at least helping to compile, the Manyoshu. 473 of his poems are included, most of them in the final four volumes. It is possible that the anthology did not gain its final form until the final decades of the eighth century, or possibly part way into the ninth. One of the greatest Japanese poets of all time, Kakinomoto Hitomaro, is also well represented in the anthology, particularly in the first three books. It is impossible to determine how many of the poems in the section commonly known as the Hitomaro Collection were actually written by Hitomaro himself, but scholars believe that he definitely wrote some of its 367 poems, and many others are directed to him. Other important contributors include Takechi Kurohito, and Yamanoue Okura, both of whom were also of the eighth century. Unfortunately, with the invention of new syllabary, the Manyoshu became unreadable to lay persons by the tenth century. As Ian Hideo Levy relates the history: “In 951 Emperor Murakami ordered a poet named Minamoto Shitago to decipher its phonetic and semantic mix of Chinese characters. It was the beginning of a process that has occupied thousands of scholars since.” Levy credits the Priest Keichu in the seventeenth century and Kamo Mabuchi in the eighteenth for their commentaries, which served as the basis for all interpretations that followed. Japanese editions by Omodaka Hisataka and by Nakanishi Susumu are considered authoritative.

Major Themes

The dominant theme of the Manyoshu is love and its complications of loss and separation. In keeping with its wide range of material, some of the poetry is frankly erotic. Other threads run through the anthology too, with individual poems focusing on nature, legends, and folk tales, while others celebrate the imperial family, or mourn royal deaths by way of funeral laments.

Critical Reception

Critics universally praise the Manyoshu. Perhaps the only disagreement among scholars arises in discussions of the relative merits of the various translations of the work. One critic may believe that too much effort is made in maintaining the proper syllable count, while another believes it essential; one may lean toward spontaneous outbursts of feeling, while another may prefer studied literalness. Fortunately there are a variety of translations available, although purists are not pleased at best-of versions which include only one thousand of the original poems. Harold Wright explains the reputation of the Manyoshu in this way: “Embodying strength of feeling, sincerity, and simplicity, these poems have been honored as the purest expression of the early Japanese spirit.” Levy has commented: “The astonishing ease with which the phenomena of nature are transformed into symbolic images of psychological states is one of the great accomplishments of Japanese literature.” Graeme Wilson finds the Manyoshu to be so clearly the most brilliant collection of Japanese poetry “that no man ignorant of its contents can reckon himself entirely civilised.”